Book Review: A Sudden Light

A Sudden Light
By: Garth Stein
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: September 30th, 2014
Page Count: 416
Source: ARC Kindly Provided By Publisher
Audience/Genre: Adult Fiction
 Buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

As I read the last five chapters of A Sudden Light I gasped, fought back tears (and lost), pleaded with the book as if I could alter the course of events, broke into a sentimental smile, and finally sighed with satisfaction as I powered down my Kindle, saying, "That's exactly how this should end." Equal parts ghost story, family secrets mystery, and love stor(ies), this novel is a perfect fall read and one of my favorites for 2014.

14-year-old Trevor Riddell's family is falling apart. His mother has returned to England to stay with family and sends his father, Jones Riddell, to deal with his estranged family and his unresolved childhood issues. Once Trevor and his father arrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the sweeping estate upon which Riddell House is built, Trevor begins to unravel the mysteries of his current and extended family through long forgotten journals, letters never postmarked, and the occasional visit from the family ghosts that are bound to the land around Riddell House.

Garth Stein is a storyteller and a craftsman. The most accurate description of his character development is smoldering. The changes are incremental and subtle, but so constant and continuous, that you truly aren't able to pinpoint the moment when your feelings about a character change, but they definitely have and, in some cases, have done a complete 180. His plot development is equally well-crafted and, though you may find yourself blindsided, everything is plausible and works together seamlessly in the end. (Bonus: This book has one of THE BEST epilogues I've ever read.)

The point of view is expertly chosen and though, in the beginning you may doubt the reliability of a 14-year-old narrator, Trevor is the perfect guide for the web of Riddell history and the (literal and metaphorical) secret passages of Riddell House. Stein plays with time throughout the novel in a series of flashbacks, but does not have to hand hold or label these time changes. As an example, near the end of the book there is a chapter which initially seems unconnected to the events of the story, but is expertly placed and written, tying together loose ends and giving readers a brief respite from the emotional ride of the final chapters and epilogue. I like that Stein trusts in both his ability as a writer and in the ability of his readers, and doesn't resort to overt, in your face storytelling.

Summary via Goodreads

When a boy tries to save his parents’ marriage, he uncovers a legacy of family secrets in a coming-of-age ghost story by the author of the internationally bestselling phenomenon, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

In the summer of 1990, fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell gets his first glimpse of Riddell House. Built from the spoils of a massive timber fortune, the legendary family mansion is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound. Trevor’s bankrupt parents have begun a trial separation, and his father, Jones Riddell, has brought Trevor to Riddell House with a goal: to join forces with his sister, Serena, dispatch Grandpa Samuel—who is flickering in and out of dementia—to a graduated living facility, sell off the house and property for development into “tract housing for millionaires,” divide up the profits, and live happily ever after.

But Trevor soon discovers there’s someone else living in Riddell House: a ghost with an agenda of his own. For while the land holds tremendous value, it is also burdened by the final wishes of the family patriarch, Elijah, who mandated it be allowed to return to untamed forestland as a penance for the millions of trees harvested over the decades by the Riddell Timber company. The ghost will not rest until Elijah’s wish is fulfilled, and Trevor’s willingness to face the past holds the key to his family’s future.

A Sudden Light is a rich, atmospheric work that is at once a multigenerational family saga, a historical novel, a ghost story, and the story of a contemporary family’s struggle to connect with each other. A tribute to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, it reflects Garth Stein’s outsized capacity for empathy and keen understanding of human motivation, and his rare ability to see the unseen: the universal threads that connect us all.